THINK ON THESE: The new green

Without water, there is no thing as life. Because water is life in itself. As such, blue has become the new green!

On March 22 – the day our editor-in-chief Antonio M. Ajero was born! – the Philippines will celebrate the World Water Day. This international event was designated by the United Nations General Assembly. It is held annually “to focus attention on the importance of freshwater and to promote the sustainable management of freshwater resources.”

It has been 24 years since the first celebration was held on March 22, 1993. Since then, the celebration highlights a specific aspect of freshwater or corresponds to a current or future challenge.

In the Philippines, the celebration lasts for at least one week by virtue of Executive Order No. 258 issued in 1996, adopting the Philippine Water Week.

This year, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) leads a week-long effort to raise awareness on the importance of maintaining reliable and effective treatment of wastewater, which has the potential to be an incredibly valuable resource. This year’s theme is “Water and Wastewater.”

According to Nonita Caguioa, the environment assistant secretary for staff bureaus, the theme aims to highlight the symbiosis between water and wastewater in the quest for sustainable development.

“Treated wastewater can act as a drought-resistant source of water especially for agriculture and industry, source of nutrients for agriculture, soil conditioner and source of energy or heat,” Caguioa said. “In effect, wastewater management is a key to poverty reduction for it sustains ecosystems services. It improves food security, health and ultimately the economy.”

If untreated, Caguioa pointed out, wastewater can cause environmental damage and serious health problems.

Wastewater contains a number of pollutants and contaminants such that when discharged to freshwater bodies and marine waters without being treated, can cause water pollution that is harmful to aquatic life. “When discharged on lands, wastewater can leach into underground water tables and potentially contaminate aquifers and underground water,” said a statement from the environment department.

Wastewater is also a big health issue as it carries and transports a myriad of diseases and illnesses. The World Health Organization reports that about 2.2 million people die each year worldwide from water-related diseases, mostly children in developing countries.

During his time, historian Thomas Fuller declared: “We only learn the value of a glass of water when the well runs dry.”

I am sure no one will debate with Fuller now (if someone did have when he was still alive). As Father Dave Domingues pointed out in his editorial in one of the issues of issue of World Mission: “(Fuller’s) statement captures, in a nutshell, the experience of many people in the world today who only value the simple things in life when they can no longer have them. And failure to value simple commodities, such as fresh water, usually leads us to a wasteful use of it – unconscious that water is life!”

Earth is a water world as water covers 71% of the world’s total surface. This represents a volume of 1,400 million cubic kilometers, according to United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Unknowingly, 97.5% is too salty to be consumed or used for industrial or agricultural purposes. Fresh water represents 2.5% of the water total.

“Water is the most precious asset on Earth,” points out Sandra Postel, director of the Global Water Policy Project based in Amherst, Massachusetts. “It is the basis of life.” She believes water problems will be right there with climate change as a threat to the human future.

“Although the two are related, water has no substitutes,” Postel says. “We can transition away from coal and oil to solar, wind and other renewable energy sources. But there is no transitioning away from water to something else.”

Without water, there is no food. After all, 70% of global water use is accounted for by agriculture. About 20% goes to industry. And the remaining 10% is being used by households (for drinking, cooking, washing clothes, bathing, etc.).

The Philippines was one of the countries identified by a recent report released by World Resources Institute (WRI) to experience water stress. It is defined as “the ratio between total water withdrawals and available renewable surface water at a sub-catchment level.”

Of the 161 countries surveyed by the American think tank, the Philippines was ranked 57th under the “business-as-usual” scenario. The country got a score of 3.01 which, according to the study’s water stress threshold levels, is “high.” The ratio of withdrawals to available water is 40-80%.

The study went further, predicting the degree of water shortage for 3 specific sectors: industrial, domestic, and agricultural. Agriculture got the highest score of 3.26, followed by industrial sector (2.96) and domestic use (2.92). The last two sectors were classified under the “medium to high,” which means the ratio of withdrawals to available water is 20-40%.

While there is still enough water for every Filipinos these days, the water scarcity will be felt by 2040 — that’s 25 years from now. “These country-level water stress projections are intended to provide useful information about potential future water situations that can help drive improved water management at the international scale,” notes the WRI study.

Water is fundamental for life and health. “The human right to water is indispensable for leading a healthy life in human dignity,” the UN Committee on Economic, Cultural and Social Rights said. “It is a pre-requisite to the realization of all other human rights.”

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